Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

CNAS’s Cronin: Thanks, CNAS’s Denmark, but China still worries me

CNAS, the little think tank that could, doesn’t take corporate stances or insist on agreement, and we have some pretty lively debates. Here’s an example: Patrick Cronin, senior director of our Asia-Pacific Security Program, here takes issue with what Abe Denmark, who directs our Asia-Pacific Security Program, asserted here last week, that we shouldn’t be ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

CNAS, the little think tank that could, doesn't take corporate stances or insist on agreement, and we have some pretty lively debates. Here's an example: Patrick Cronin, senior director of our Asia-Pacific Security Program, here takes issue with what Abe Denmark, who directs our Asia-Pacific Security Program, asserted here last week, that we shouldn't be worrying about China as a threat because it is gonna get old before it gets rich.

By Patrick Cronin
Best Defense Asia bureau chief

CNAS, the little think tank that could, doesn’t take corporate stances or insist on agreement, and we have some pretty lively debates. Here’s an example: Patrick Cronin, senior director of our Asia-Pacific Security Program, here takes issue with what Abe Denmark, who directs our Asia-Pacific Security Program, asserted here last week, that we shouldn’t be worrying about China as a threat because it is gonna get old before it gets rich.

By Patrick Cronin
Best Defense Asia bureau chief

There are good reasons for American national security planners to worry about China’s rise. Its rapid growth may make Chinese political and military leaders both more confident and more assertive. Its military forces are moving beyond Taiwan scenarios to wider active defense strategies aimed at neutralizing U.S. power projection. Its diplomatic strategy runs counter to America’s regional network of alliances and partnerships. Its quest for comprehensive and asymmetric power is making it a quiet leader in new domains, including cyber space and outer space. And its booming economy and tremendous savings are boosting its clout with regional neighbors and global actors alike.

In the face of these trends, it would be folly for the United States to ignore the potential threat posed by its biggest emerging rival, one governed by the Chinese Communist Party and thus a rival that retains far too much secrecy and too little accountability

Confidence in the continued preeminence of America is a good thing unless it leads us to distort reality. Internationally, U.S. students test low in math and science and rank first in confidence. Similarly, those Americans who would dismiss China’s past three decades of accomplishment could be making a similar, but far graver, mistake. If one is looking to confirm a preconceived bias that the Chinese juggernaut cannot long sustain its breathless pace or rocket-like trajectory, it is a simple task to find evidence of: its social and political fragmentation; its failure to segue to a new economic model; its aging society; its resource scarcity; its environmental calamity; its lack of soft power.

Yet China almost surely will become the world’s largest economy, and India may well eventually push America to being number three. While none of this guarantees that China can translate its rising wealth into influence, it certainly seems bent on trying to do so. Indeed, one indicator of this is how China has awakened of late to India’s rise. Another indicator is its recent assertion of power in the South and East China Seas. Yet another is its return to double digit defense spending increases at the very time when the United States is talking about the need to trim its own defense budget.

Meanwhile, as we wait for myriad challenges to put the brakes on China’s reemergence and to satiate its burgeoning appetite for power, we ought to be sure we understand the volatile and inherently renewable nature of U.S. power. This was President Barack Obama’s point during his most recent State of the Union speech, when he referenced Chinese economic and technological advances and challenged this generation of Americans to realize its ‘Sputnik’ moment: the point at which Americans must wake up from their slumber and redouble their efforts to invest in what made America great in the first place. China and India were exceptional in that they suffered only one quarter of economic downturn during the global financial crisis; America continues to slowly try to climb out of its deepest recession, and now it faces uncertainty over oil markets and its key economic partner, Japan, faces its own unprecedented challenges.

China’s gains relative to the United States matter because the character of war, though not its raw nature, has changed even during America’s relatively brief tenure as a global power. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld boasted of transformation and then proceeded to violate Clausewitz’s first axiom and embark on a war that he did not understand. But we can agree with Rumsfeld on the basic point he repeatedly makes in his memoir: weakness invites trouble. The question of how to measure strength and weakness is far more complicated than comparing orders of battle and even the technological advances in major platforms. Writing in the December 2010 issue of Qiushi Journal, the official publication of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, one analyst explained seven strategies to counter U.S. power, and they involved preparing across the full array of economic, information, diplomatic, and military instruments of power. They also involve imponderables such as the element of surprise. So, the character of war keeps changing, but net assessment also requires a frank look at our own vulnerabilities, and there are serious questions about our ability to preserve a vast military, operating globally, while seeking to ensure our own economic foundation, our own secure homeland, our own cyber and space security, and our own alliance and partner relationships.

In short, American confidence is fine provided it doesn’t obscure the reality that China is a rival to the United States, at least as much as it is a potential partner. Let there be no doubt that China poses a potential threat to the United States. China will be able to challenge the United States in Asia far before it ever challenges it globally. The political goal should not be to wish away China as a potential threat, but to try to prevent China from becoming an enemy.

Indeed, as Abe Denmark pointed out in recent testimony to the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, American strategies should encourage China to play a more responsible role in the world, but they must also continue to defend U.S. interests and hedge against potential Chinese aggression. It is possible for our technology and our integrated systems to remain a generation ahead of China’s and still be vulnerable to a variety of asymmetric approaches that include cyber war, economic assault, and clever political-military maneuvering along China’s periphery and far from our shores. Weakness in the face of a rapidly emerging, highly confident, and potentially savvy opponent who resorts to asymmetric and nontraditional means of warfare on his own periphery far from our shores is clearly asking for trouble.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1
Tag: China

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